Out from Chagall’s shadow: “The Virginia Project” in High Falls

Virginia Haggard and her daughter, Jean McNeil, in the snow. (Courtesy of Jean McNeil)

Unless you’ve been in a slumber as deep as Rip Van Winkle’s, you know that the #MeToo movement is casting light into every shadow of female disempowerment these days. So when a gallery exhibition opens focusing on the underestimated female partner of a famous man, it seems timely indeed. But while poet and short-story writer Tina Barry says that she has long considered herself a feminist – “I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation,” she says, as echoed by so many others – the impetus to curate “The Virginia Project” at the Wired Gallery in High Falls was not directly related to current events.

“The Virginia Project” is a written-word and visual arts collaboration among Barry and 14 women artists who interpreted prose poems written by Barry, in styles that range from realistic illustration to site-specific installations. The words that inspired the art will be displayed in the exhibit alongside the artwork. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, October 27 from 5 to 7 p.m., with the show remaining on view through Sunday, November 25. Gallery hours are Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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While the exhibit is not directly tied to current politics, “I do think it’s important to be looking at women at this time,” Barry says, “to have women looking at other women to say, ‘I see you, I appreciate what you’re doing,’ and keep that going. There’s only so much you can do about what’s happening in the world, so the act of making art is a way of dealing with it.”

The project actually began with a simple bit of synchronicity. In 2015, when Barry moved from Brooklyn to High Falls, she was intrigued to discover that renowned artist Marc Chagall and his decades-younger lover, Virginia Haggard (pregnant with their son David), had made a similar move from New York City to High Falls in 1946, living in the hamlet for two years in a small frame house with adjoining studio that still stands not five minutes from where Barry and her artist husband, Bob Barry, live.

Inspired to learn more about Virginia Haggard and her five-year-old daughter, Jean McNeil, who accompanied her mother and Chagall to live in High Falls, Barry was taken aback by the lack of information that she could find about Haggard in materials written about the artist, even in reading about the exhibit, “Chagall in High Falls,” mounted at the D & H Canal Museum in 2011. “If Virginia was mentioned at all, she was described as the tall woman at his side: a pretty appendage to the whole story. Sometimes she was referred to as his maid – which she had been for a short time, but became so much more than that – and sometimes as his mistress, which she never was, because Chagall’s wife had died shortly before he and Haggard met.”

Barry eventually discovered that Haggard was an accomplished and interesting woman in her own right who spoke several languages. She was cosmopolitan, the well-educated daughter of a diplomat and an aspiring artist herself, who became a portrait photographer and wrote a memoir.

Feeling the injustice in Chagall’s partner being reduced to a footnote to his legacy, Barry began to write prose poems meant to give voice to Haggard and McNeil, allowing mother and daughter to speak for themselves in the pieces. “I felt that they had been trivialized and diminished in history, and had no voice in Chagall’s story. I wasn’t trying to write a historical account of their time in High Falls; it draws on that, but it’s fiction.”

Some of the pieces were inspired by Haggard’s memoir, My Life with Chagall: Seven Years of Plenty with the Master, as Told by the Woman Who Shared Them. Others were influenced by Barry’s contact with Jean McNeil, now in her 70s and a painter in England. In their conversations, Barry learned that the time in High Falls had been a difficult one for McNeil, a sensitive child who watched the adults in her life closely and got a bit lost in the shuffle as the daughter of another man whose mother was pregnant with Chagall’s son. McNeil revealed to Barry that she had been shipped off to boarding school after arriving in High Falls, which provided inspiration for several of the pieces that Barry wrote.

Chagall and Haggard would stay together for seven years all told. Writing in Virginia’s voice came naturally to her, Barry says, but Jean’s voice was a little trickier: finding a way to suggest the way a child thinks without resorting to cuteness. The written works form an impressionistic picture of what Haggard and McNeil’s lives might have been like during their two years in High Falls – a collective of telling moments rather than a linear chronological narrative.

As an artist and former designer of textiles and children’s clothing, Barry has a strong visual sensibility that affects how she puts words together. “I do think very visually; and in writing, you create your own pictures of what a scene looks like, what a person looks like. And because I’m around so many artists, I couldn’t help but think of how they would have rendered it. And that gave me the idea to really see how they would do it, and create a show using artists’ interpretations of my writing.”

Barry reached out to some artists she already knew, and found others online. A few were recommended to her through other artists participating in the project. “I chose artists because I liked the way they expressed themselves visually. I picked pieces to send to them that I thought they could relate to. Then, from those pieces, they chose which one to work from. I was giving the artists images, and they could do whatever they wanted to with it, use it or not; but they were there to work with.”

And choosing a diverse group of artists was purposeful, Barry adds. “I wanted people who work in all sorts of media, and styles from very realistic to conceptual. But it’s been surprising to me what’s come back; much of the work has been so unexpected. The two artists who had the most emotional pieces, with the most action, came back with very conceptual, very intellectual work, boiled down to very few and small images. It’s been so interesting to see. And I enjoyed the process; I wanted to discover people.”

Detail of Lori van Houten’s mixed-media installation White Flannel

The 14 women who participated in “The Virginia Project” include Leslie Bender, Barbara Danin, Jenny Lee Fowler, Jaime Caul, Trish Classe Cianakis, Wendy Hollender, Heige Kim, Ingrid Keppler Lisowski, Kate McGloughlin, Giselle Potter, Adie Russell, Amy Talluto, Anique Sara Taylor and Lori van Houten.

The gallery show has been in the works for approximately a year at this point, Barry says. When she approached gallerist Sevan Melikyan about mounting the show at the Wired Gallery, she didn’t know that he had an interest already in the time that Haggard and Chagall lived in High Falls. “That was a lucky accident that I approached him and he was so receptive. And I’m hoping this becomes a book; that was the original idea for this, but that’s still evolving.”

When the exhibit closes in High Falls in November, it will travel to the galleries at Long Island University. “We’ll see after that,” Barry says. “I’m open to it being open-ended and see what develops, if anything. Maybe another woman would want to jump in and do something else – maybe take a look at another marginalized woman and spin something off that.”

Tina Barry is the author of Mall Flower: Poems and Short Fiction. Two pieces in the book were nominated for the Pushcart Prize; one of the stories was included in the Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology. Her poems and flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Long Island University, Brooklyn, in 2014.

“The Virginia Project” opening, Saturday, October 27, 5-7 p.m., through November 25, Saturday/Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wired Gallery, 11 Mohonk Road, High Falls; (682) 564-5613, www.thewiredgallery.com.

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